Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Matter of Interpretation

For the longest time, if you wanted to watch the latest blockbuster hits, but happened to be Deaf, you would have to wait until it came out on VHS or DVD, which would keep you out of the loop for up to six months to several years;  all the while, more movies would be released, keeping you further backlogged and unable to discuss potential spoilers without looking up second-hand plot summaries.  Only recently was there technology that would allow hard-of-hearing viewers to enjoy the experience of action movies.  Other than the explosions, half the fun comes from the inane catchphrases thrown about.

That is, unless you happened to live in Montreal, with its unusual Draconian language-protection laws.  Feeling that their French language was under attack from being bombarded via easy access to English media, Bill 101 was abused to go after any store signs or packaging that didn't have FRENCH emblazoned in large font, and an English version below in smaller font.  There would be grand fights over whether Eatons or Eaton's with an apostrophe was proper or not.  There was also the crackdown on a menu for having pasta on it's menu for sounding too Italian.  This would be on par with claiming that Sushi sounded too 'Asian'.  These were literal Grammar Nazis who could threaten to close a small business if it wasn't part of a larger franchise name.

With this backstory background in place, the following event may (or may not) make more sense.  Jeffrey Liebman, a deaf man was all set to enjoy the latest Star Trek movie, only to be told that he wouldn't be able to access the captioning device.  The reason?  They refused because there weren't any French subtitles available.  If the French Deaf can't enjoy the movie, then the English Deaf couldn't enjoy it either.

I'm not a regular movie-goer, much more preferring to stay in the comfort of my home, where I'm not easily distracted by the crowd, and can control the pace of the film to my liking.  But my sister's more of a social animal than me, and was only able to have some subtitles available for Deadpool, the 'Merc with the Mouth' who, ironically enough, has his mouth covered for pretty much the majority of his screen time.  (And even if he DID have his mouth shown, it's doubtful she'd be able to understand him, given how decomposed his fleshy area is.)  Her husband pretty much had to go and argue with the theater manager for a long time in order to get the necessary captioner device in place.  They're fitted in a cup holder-like slot to face the viewer, and aren't disturbing to other movie fans, since the text only shows up in front of their seat.  He went to the theater ahead of time on the day to check that the captions worked. When they got there that evening, they didn't work, and he had to go find a manager to sort it out. Turned out someone forgot to turn on the machine in the projection room.  The closest controversy these things could present is that they have the script for the movie embedded in their electronics, but unless you have someone with the necessary know-how to hack into the device, the risk assessment is significantly small.  (It's similar to reading a theater script before seeing the actual play)

Even independent film reviewers aren't immune from this problem.  You'd think that preventing bad publicity from someone who had a license to publish scathing editorials would be a consideration, but apparently, that's not a high priority.

All this could be attributed to a gulf between the English/French divide.  But another explanation is the lack of compromise between the Hearing/Deaf.  As an invisible handicap, Deafness doesn't have the exploitable visibility of blindness or motor function loss, and thus, people aren't as willing to be as forthcoming unless we wear a sign saying "I'm Deaf" for the world to see.
For the uninitiated, the last cow has her ears hooked up to the cowbell.
For the most part, regular hearing people are simply unwilling to throw a bone, simply because accommodating a Deaf person understand what's going on is too much of a hassle.  Well, sorry that the mere prospect of not being able to hear properly is so inconvenient for you.

Even though I don't go out to movies that much, I'm still extremely limited in other aspects of being able to socialize normally.  If I want to understand group discussions, it's absolutely imperative that I have an interpreter present, so that I can understand what's going on.  By the time someone's stopped talking, I'm still playing catch-up with the first word.  Even if I paid intense attention, I'd still only catch snatches of the beginning or ending of sentences being bandied around the table.  It's a game of conversational ping-pong that I'm grossly outmatched in.

Regular hearing people just don't understand the mere prospect of how difficult life can be when you're Deaf. As if the mere prospect of "you just have to listen harder" would wipe away the discomfort of being unable to hear properly.  What most hearing people fail to understand it the scope of how difficult it is to make use of a talent that's already frayed to begin with.  It's not as if constant use of our ear muscles could hope to strengthen the weakened eardrums or hair follicles after vigilant use.  That's not what being Deaf means.

Being deaf means being unable to hear sounds in the normal noise range, and that can be attributed to general confusion about how loud decibels can be.  Every ten decibels is not ten plus louder than the previous level, but ten times louder than the previous incarnation.  One decibel is the standard base.  10 decibels is 10 times louder, 20 decibels is 100 times louder, 30 decibels is 1000 times louder, and so on.
The average deaf person can have a hearing loss of 60 decibels, which at first sight, doesn't seems so much, but means that they hear 1,000,000 times less than usual.  MY hearing loss is between 90 to 120 decibels, which is between a billion to a trillion times LESS than the average human.  Without my hearing aids, the only noise I could hear would be a rock concert next to a roaring jet engine.

Given that most teenagers prefer to play their music at full blast, imagine how frustrated they'd be at having the dial turned down all the way from Eleven to one.

When I was in Grade school, I was outfitted with an FM System where I had the teacher wear a mini-microphone device around their neck that would repeat whatever was said through an electronic device connected to my hearing aid.  I can tell you from personal experience that I NEVER understood a single thing I heard from the electronic, and only went along with it for years simply because I was told to.  In my remaining years of High School, I found the contraption to be so useless to me that I simply stopped giving it to the teachers, which must've come as something of a relief to them, and solely relied on an Oral Interpreter for understanding the going-ons of the classroom.

My mother fought long and hard to ensure that there would be enough funding for me and other Deaf students to have Oral Interpreting throughout my High School years.  In College and University classes, Deaf students are allowed to have interpreters present to help them understand what's happening in class.  So why wouldn't it make sense to have these helpful assistants available during High School during our peak years when learning is most essential?

"But don't you have hearing aids that can help increase the amount of stuff you can hear?"

Yes, but as effective as that tool is, it's still inefficient in other ways.  While a hearing aid helps tremendously in letting me hear sounds that otherwise wouldn't pass detection (via an extremely LOUD whistle when not lodged inside my ear canal), it's not very efficient in weeding out variable noises.  See, a hearing aid doesn't just amplify the sound of the person talking next to me, it amplifies ALL noise in the room.  From the background traffic to the hum of the radiator to the people chattering in the background.

Such advice is equivalent to telling a double amputee that they shouldn't have much trouble tying their shoelaces, since they've got prosthetics to do the job for them.  "They're perfectly capable of working, so what's the problem?"  If weeding out all these sounds were as easy as it sounds, the average person would be able to understand with perfect clarity what someone on a telephone is saying in a noisy environment.  It's the same principle - when your only source of sound comes from one place and it's a confusing hodge-podge of noise, how can you possibly understand anything that's being said?

"But can't you simply read lips to understand what they're saying?"

Normally, yes, but not everybody is as avid in reading lips as I am, and that came from years of experience from constant intervention, interaction and filling in the blanks and double-guessing what everybody's saying.
When you watch TV shows or movies, you're granted the luxury of the actor showing their valuable face time by making sure their handsome and beautiful mugs are in full view of the audience whenever possible.  But that convenience is sadly lacking in real life where you're more likely to see the back of someone's head while engaging in conversation.  Good luck reading lips from the wrong side.

And even if you position yourself into an ideal place (without being in a bad lighting spot), seeing both side's lips is rarely likely to occur in reality, since people are hardly going to rotate themselves around to me.  When people are engaged in conversation, they're likely to forget the presence of someone who can't hear their every word, and trying to play catch-up with both sides changing dialogue at a moment's notice means I'm constantly a few seconds behind, and wind up missing crucial key words that could help crack the whole conversation open.  And that's not even taking in account the nefarious "silent letters" so prevalent in English language.  It's enough to discourage the amateur lipreader from even trying in the first place.

And that's not even accounting for all the letters that look alike when no sound is present.  Names and addresses are the worst.  They're easily the hardest words to understand, especially if they're from places we have no familiarity with, save for how they're spelled.  Getting the slightest word wrong can throw the whole conversation out of context if you're not aware of the subject.  Otherwise, you'd wind up speaking non-sequiturs when you meant to make a point.

Often enough, having to constantly double-check everything that's being said can be an exercise in exhaustion.  Sooner or later, even the most devoted Deaf person will rely on making guesses as to what someone's saying so as not to slow the conversation down and inconvenience everyone.  While this may seem helpful at first glance, missing out on large snatches of what's going on can wind up being detrimental in the long term.

Asking questions all the time may be the hallmark of a curious person, but asking too many runs the risk of being too inquisitive.  Being unable to contribute meaningfully to group discussions can foster deep resentment even among the most well-meaning of friends who simply can't understand how someone seemingly smart can be so distant.  Well, not catching everything that's being said is a guaranteed formula to cause alienation.

Some helpful tips in talking to Deaf people - emphasize certain key words, like Videogame characters in Quest missions.  And if a word is too hard to make out, substitute it for another one.  For instance, "Take statistics attendance on nicotine" is impossible to lipread, since there's hardly any lip movement, but "Smoking addiction numbers" is much easier in comparison.

If the subject you're talking about is too difficult to ascertain upon first utterance, replace the unnaturally longwinded spoken prose with more succinct suitable substitute words.  In short, if the person doesn't understand what you're saying, use different words with the same meaning, rather than repeat a word that could be easily mistaken for something else.  Also, use pantomime to illustrate what you're talking about.

Another common myth is the belief that talking to a Deaf person simply requires shouting louder and louder until they understand what you're talking about.  Not true.  I need to be facing whoever's talking, and have instructions pointed out step by step and spoken slowly and clearly, but not so exaggerated that your actions make you look like you belong in the circus.  (Though I'm more likely to remember instructions if they're written down, since I have a terrible auditorial memory.)
Also, don't stand so close - some distance is needed to see the speaker's lips.
Despite this early intervention, there still seems to be some general confusion about just what an Oral Interpreter's function is.  Some people seem to think that an Oral Interpreter is a barrier to social contact, because they're the only person that I communicate with.  Not true - the interpreter is the solid reliable source for deciphering all the surrounding noise in a room.  Being focused on a solitary target that repeats what's being said is much more reliable than constantly moving my head around trying to catch snippets of half-gleamed conversations, which I'd probably misunderstand anyways.

And Oral Interpreters like Doctors & Lawyers, have a code of privacy.  They're not going to reveal any confidential information that may pass from people's lips.  They may occasionally interject themselves into the conversation, but only to further clarify something the Deaf client is trying to say.  The function of an Oral Interpreter is not to interfere with the conversation, but make it easier for the Deaf client to understand what's going on.  This is accomplished by giving up-to-date sentences said in the heat of the moment, and giving a condensed summary of what people in a group are talking about.  Otherwise, after everybody's finished talking, you'd be left with no real context of what just went on.

Sadly, for all the technological advances made, there's still not much that can be done for basic human ignorance over the most obvious issues.  Even well-intended Deaf organizations aren't immune from making novice mistakes such as:

  • Having your only form of communication for Deaf clients being a telephone number (no email address), and wondering why no one ever calls.
  • Holding an auditorium meeting with dim lighting and the speaker obscured by the microphone and stage platform.
  • Having conversations with a hearing person and a Deaf person, and always facing the hearing person, while facing away from the Deaf person, despite the knowledge that the hearing person is more likely to understand the speaker if they turn away than the Deaf person ever will under similar circumstances.

And yet, despite the immense helpfulness of an Oral Interpreter in social situations, getting one can still be a huge hassle.  They can only be available in certain conditions, such as upcoming meetings, social functions, and an Interpreter has to be scheduled well in advance, and not on the spur of the moment.  Getting an Oral Interpreter for a bi-weekly group gathering is an uphill struggle even though it only costs like, $75 a session.  Neither organization - the Deaf or the Social - were willing to be up front on compensating for the cost, which would be a pittance in their overall budget.  I still can't get an interpreter for a single class on Creative Writing, simply because it's considered a non-essential course, even though I'd greatly benefit from hearing what other people in the classroom would be saying.  It's ironic that someone in a wheelchair would have more access to places than I can.

Ironically enough, one of my most frequent complaints towards people who have difficulty understanding me is, "What's the matter, can't you hear properly?!", as if my speech pattern was perfectly decipherable.

Today's technologies are now considerably smaller and faster, but the stigma still remains.  Trying to tell regular hearing people to control their speech patterns when talking to Deaf people remains an exercise in repetition, since they're bound to fall into their usual traps of regular conversation, such as moving their head, constantly smiling (it's hard to read lips when all you see is teeth) and regularly falling back to fast-paced conversation when talking to a normal hearing person, usually turning their heads away from the conversation.  As mentioned earlier, it's hard to read lips when all you can see is the back of someone's head.

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